Stress — a smooth criminal
/strɛs/ — noun
– pressure or tension exerted on a material object.
– a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.
This weekend I was driving to Germany for a well-needed (one can debate on it being well-deserved since I’m still taking things easy at work, but hell yeah, having three kids and a lot of stuff going on, I tend to claim it is well-deserved too) holiday.
I was looking forward to the drive, as Germany doesn’t have any speed limits on most highways. As usual, the hope for a speedy drive was soon replaced by mild disappointment, realizing that I had again suppressed the memories of never-ending roadworks in that same country.
Nevertheless, we got over it and were enjoying a relatively nice drive at moderate speed, when all of a sudden the panoramic sunroof scattered in thousands of pieces. There was no impact, perhaps a minor bump in the road, and no rock falling on the roof. It just scattered, even though it looked perfectly ok when I last washed the car — some months ago admittedly.
As I duly respect my loyal followers, I won’t explain the analogy between the panoramic roof and people breaking down for too long, but none of my colleagues expected me to crack.
I looked ok, and my performance reviews were fine, but for years, probably decades, there was chronic stress building up, which gradually degraded my — not to be underestimated — resilience. Even though I survived heavy bumps along the road and always bounced back.
The ignorant manager
Anyway, I didn’t intend to talk about my own experience, nor about my car (a VW Tiguan by the way & also had a colleague with a VW Passat, having experienced the same, rather dangerous problem. I will never learn… now for sure I won’t ever become a key member of the VW affiliate program, making the road to financial independence again a bit harder — but let’s be honest: Volkswagen should by now know their panoramic roof is under tension no?).
Burnout in general is an energy problem. It is often a result of years and years of ignoring signals your body is screaming out. A result of chronic looting of your own body, unconsciously or knowingly — not caring or not being able to change.
Let’s take a step back. I’m not a doctor (and as you will very soon notice I’m also not an artist), so I use existing information to explain known mechanisms in my way.
I’m trying to advise people in doubt to take care of themselves, to help people that are currently hitting rock bottom, and finally trying to explain how it all feels before, during, and after to people like my manager who said: “I probably also had a burnout 5 years ago…” and then try to minimize what you’re feeling and say you shouldn’t have stress.
For the latter group: a sneak preview — there is no “I probably had” or “I might have had”. You know when you got struck! It hits you like the hammer of Thor. And at the moment you’re giving the advice not to stress, it already became a problem way beyond just the mental stress.
You’re talking to someone with a body that was conditioned in a very wrong way for a very long time. Don’t get discouraged by the quality of some homemade drawings, but hang in there and continue reading for your colleagues, friends, and family members. You should try to understand to be able to help them.
When Cortisol goes crazy
Apologies for the above. Anyway: theory says a certain amount of stress is ideal to perform and be the best version of yourself. However, every one of these Gaussian curves I’ve seen has a top. The top of this performance graph is a thin cord to balance on and if the top performer is not careful, fatigue is there waiting for him like a sly fox.
I’m also kicking in open doors, stating that unattended fatigue has a fair chance of leading to exhaustion, panic, anxiety, and anger in later stages. All signs that burnout is in the making.
Behind the scenes of this stress versus performance curve, the stress hormone Cortisol is having a party. I’ll leave the technical details for the specialists, but in short: acute stress situations cause the adrenal glands to produce the steroid hormone cortisol, which in subtle interaction with adrenaline causes some response in the body:
- Increased heart rate
- Faster breathing
- Sweat production goes up
- and a lot of internal things, you might prefer to look up
Promised to keep it short, so this is as far as I go on the metabolic mechanism. The biggest problems start surfacing when a second partner steps into the dance: time.
Having heavy stress for too long, causes your cortisol levels to be up all the time, whereas in ideal circumstances they’re only up at the beginning of the day (when our ancestors needed to be chary and wary of predators during their hunts).
Anything seems to trigger high heart rates, and all the other party parameters, eventually exhausting your body. It can be a long and weary process before your resistance breaks (you could compare it with an elastic band that is constantly stretched and overstretched too many times and snaps… if you want to forget about sunroof debacles as much as I do).
Avoid breaking at all costs— recognize & act
The best cure for burnout is avoidance and getting back to productive stress levels while you still can. This requires both awareness of all the signals listed in the McKinsey article linked above (or on one of the thousands of other sites repeating the same) and swift action.
Reading the alarm signs on a slide makes it all look really simple, but when it comes to your own body, a lot of other factors come into play: pride, guilt, stubbornness, underestimation of the red flags(“it’ll pass” or “not me”), ignorance, society-/job-/financial pressure, fear, etc. It takes a lot to be proactive.
You need a healthy cocktail of gut, self-knowledge, and perspective to take health-related decisions before your body takes them for you.
Acknowledging chronic stress is a strength, not a weakness
When it comes down to your health, there is no employer in the world worth making sacrifices for. No revenue target, no paycheck, no CEO, no manager, customer, or deadline is worthy of jeopardizing your health. No matter how important they all might seem at the time (here the perspective-ingredient needs to be added to the cocktail).
There is only one (1) you. You have one life. Let’s assume our lives are finite and there is no after-life (leaving religious and philosophical discussions aside here — but I can only recommend the series: A subtle mix of dark humor and emotions), it makes a lot of sense to act on it when our body is screaming for help.
Avoid/reduce stressors, reduce workload, don’t push yourself to physical limits, and take some time off. Pull the handbrake before hitting the wall.
Try to share how you’re feeling with people you trust. Talk to your general practitioner about anxiety, panic attacks, and/or sleepless nights, about your body reacting to things it shouldn’t react to. Your doctor might first check your physical condition, and examine your heart and blood…
But when these tests are all negative, you might get some different insights on your mental health state (and the physical power hereof) and potentially the extra push you needed to look after yourself.
I’m saying so because everybody is worth it and as long as you didn’t break, the way back is easier to find and, the path is so much shorter and clearer. Maybe one or two weeks off can do the job in this phase. I’m also saying so because I didn’t for a long time. And I regret it.
No more bouncing back
So it happened. Your bungee snapped and people don’t recognize you anymore (those with vivid imagination could compare it with a true bungee accident, but somewhat less fatal and with less obvious damage). Your energy is gone, but you’re still at the very right -hence wrong- side of the stress curve shown above.
Your body is empty, but still anxiety is there, sleepless nights are the new standard, and hormonal imbalance kicks in (members of your LGBTQ target group excite you as much as the average kitchen table. That is disregarding people with a fetish for kitchen tables, no pun intended).
Your physical energy level is that low you are more or less limited to lying down, even though you would like to do more. Your mental energy level is the same.
Now the question is: how to bounce back from this one? The answer is simple: you don’t. There is no sudden bounce. It took you years to arrive here and there’s a good chance it will take an equally decent amount of time to reach your new potential “no-worry”-level, which is very likely to be lower than what you were used to and also more hypothetical, as your life-phase changed and “no worries”-zone perhaps doesn’t exist anymore.
There is no bouncing back, but for sure you can and will get out if you decide to invest in yourself. You lost yourself along the way, so it’ll require some of the Kübler-Ross phases to accept your condition first.
The same feelings that perhaps withheld you from pacing down in the chronic-stress phase will for sure still be there when you’re at home recovering. At first, you will feel worse.
Acceptance is the first step. As written in “The post-burnout balance”, you need to feel your body, listen to it, and don’t try to go faster than your body allows.
Building up after burnout is delicate. Your mind and body need to become partners… truly best friends. And sometimes best friends clash, but they will always find each other again.
Try to always listen to your body. Don’t let anyone or anything convince you to go faster than your body allows you to, or the balance is lost. Don’t allow any pressure.
Once accepted and once decided you are going to invest in yourself, you’ll review your lifestyle, sleeping and eating patterns, and perhaps take supplements. All are needed, but they cannot replace the signals your body is giving you. They complement and help to answer those signals.
If you don’t yet feel all the signals, you might consider buying one of the many watches out there that measure heart rate, heart rate variance, and stress. They are quite accurate and could help you to understand what you’re feeling.
One of the most positive things about going through all this is that you go next level in understanding what your body is trying to tell you. You become the best health monitor you could wish for.
You got used to overreacting to the smallest triggers. Now it’s time to recondition. Build in active rest moments after a walk or eventually jog-session, to tell your body you weren’t fleeing. Learn how to do nothing, just breathe and get distracted by a book or series.
Show your new best friend it is ok to do nothing and there is no need to raise its heart rate and breathing rhythm. Find things that empty your head and give a safe feeling (for me at some point, the only thing that worked was being underwater, cooling down my body, hearing nothing… everything slowed down).
Only by a hard reset, you can start climbing the energy curve again from the “easy” side. Low performance, low stress. Not eliminating stressors and trying to run up that hill will put you eye to eye with anxiety and sleepless nights again (guess I’m also writing this note to myself, as a reminder).
Always remember: there’s only 1 you. Only 1 life. And you’re worth it.